Joan Manke


POSTED: Friday, July 10, 2009

Getting more people involved in grass-roots community activism, and spending less money to do it, is the challenge Joan Manke tackles every day.

She's the executive secretary of the city's Neighborhood Commission, whose nine appointees are entrusted with making sure Oahu residents have a voice in government decision-making and community planning via the island's 33 elected neighborhood boards.

Although hot-button issues regularly inspire neighborhood residents to attend meetings and voice their opinions, it's tougher to get people to run for the board seats, committing to monthly meetings and a two-year term as a volunteer.

Increasing voter turnout also is a challenge, as this year's experiment in cheaper online-only voting had opposite the intended effect: turnout was a dismally low 6 percent.

Oahu-born, the 55-year-old Manke is steeped in community action and politics, having served as Patsy Mink's chief of staff in Honolulu for 12 years, until the U.S. congresswoman died in 2002.

She's married to Jim Manke, who after retiring as the longtime spokesman for the University of Hawaii-Manoa hosts “;All Things Considered”; on Hawaii Public Radio. They have two grown children: Angela, 28, an event planner for the city of Seattle, and Eric, 23, a recent graduate of the University of Hawaii's Academy for Creative Media.

Question: Given that neighborhood boards are on the front line of community issues, what are you doing to encourage more participation?

Answer: That is the mission of the neighborhood board system, recognizing that there needs to be a grass-roots system, where residents can come together in an open venue and be heard, share their opinions and advise the government. There is a need for that participation. But how do you measure it? Not just by voter turnout, or the number of people at any given meeting. ... The board members are volunteers. ... One of the challenges has been to get people to run ... so that's an area we are focusing on, getting the word out that we need more candidates.

Q: What was the shortage in the last election?

A: There are 445 seats, and we had 412 candidates. ... We do have board members who serve, 20, 30 years, but there is also the need to bring in new, younger members to keep that commitment going.

Q: Some major community issues first surface at neighborhood boards. What are some recent concerns?

A: Especially out in the West side, there's always questions about development. Just recently there was a joint meeting of the McCully-Moiliili and Manoa boards to hear about expansion plans at Kapiolani Medical Center. Hawaii Kai is very active, with Ka Iwi, shark tours, lots of issues discussed out there. There's the bed-and-breakfasts in Kailua. So again, when that agenda comes out ... these boards are very visible in their communities and everyone can be heard at the grass-roots level; people do want to be heard.

Q: Because participation is so agenda-driven, do you think interest is higher than the election turnout indicates?

A: Yes, I believe a lot of the issues that are raised, whatever's on the agenda, is what drives the people to come out. ... You don't have to run for the board or vote in the election to come to the meeting and air your concerns. That's exactly what we see. It's agenda-driven. It's issue-driven. So how do you measure the value of the neighborhood board system? You can't do it just by looking at the election results.

Q: Your Web site has a function that allows people to receive specific neighborhood board agendas and minutes by e-mail. How many people do that?

A: That has been popular, and we're trying to encourage it even more ... this is a way people are choosing to participate and get access. We list all of our neighborhood board agendas and minutes on the Web site, and they can look at it there, or get it e-mailed. We try to be as accessible as possible.

Q: Given the low turnout, will you try online voting again?

A: I don't know. The Neighborhood Board Commission authorizes the method of the election. This past election it was driven by budget concerns. Two years ago, we had paper ballots and online voting. This year, it was only electronic. ... We need to save money, but we also want a higher vote turnout. The commission will study all that before deciding the method for the next election.

Q: When is the next election?

A: 2011. It's every two years.

Q: All of the seats are up for election every two years?

A: Yes, that's part of what makes it more costly.

Q: Have you considered longer terms?

A: That has been a suggestion, as ideas are floating around if we need to cut costs. But right now it does say in the Neighborhood Plan every two years. So that would require a change to the plan, which would require public hearings before the Neighborhood Commission makes a decision.

Q: Are any budget cuts pending?

A: For fiscal year 2010, we're OK, but I know that the directive ... is that the budget for 2011 is going to get worse before it gets better, and everyone is going to have to save money.

Q: What are some ways to cut costs?

A: Our postage cost is really high ... to mail out agendas and minutes every month for 33 neighborhood boards. So there's maybe the idea to not mail out the minutes. ... The Sunshine Law requires mailing out the agendas, and that's for transparency, and so we would keep doing that, but maybe not the minutes ... Another thing is whether boards need to meet monthly, but some boards have such a long agenda, that they need to. ... Most of our boards meet at facilities with no rental costs, but for those that do pay a rental fee, we would like to reduce that ...

Q: To whom are the minutes mailed?

A: The minutes are mailed to every individual on the board, plus anyone who signs up and asks for them. We try to encourage them to accept an electronic copy, but some people prefer mail. The minutes for every board also are posted on the Web site and we encourage people to look at them there.

Q: How do you balance those competing interests, public access versus cost?

A: At the end of the day, we all know that we need the community system. ... To have that venue, that's a lifeline in that community, will always be the first and foremost concern.


For more information about Oahu's neighborhood boards, including how to run for election, see http://hsblinks.com/gc